The recent Thoothukudi custodial death case has yet again called attention to the need for police reforms in India. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has, on multiple occasions, highlighted that custodial violence and torture are ‘rampant’ in the country. Incidentally, India is among the few nations of the world which have not ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT).
Angered by the Thoothukudi incident and in general by police high-handedness in the country, many Indians have recently called for #defund_the_police on social media platforms. While the voice of dissent is appreciable, it is disappointing to see that we, Indians, have lost the ability to think, understand, or articulate anything without western reference.
Defunding and disbanding the police was the call of action in the recent protest against prejudiced police atrocities on the African-American community in the United States. This call for defunding the police makes sense for the police in the United States, where they have been disproportionately funded and overly empowered in many states. Indian police, on the other hand, faces shortage of staff, equipment, and funds. Defunding the police in this context makes no fathomable sense.
In India, the culture of high-handedness of the police rests on a wider pedestal than just the politics of social and economic discrimination. The malady is basically historical and organizational. The much-hyped American reform measures like de-funding and disbanding belong to the administrative genre and not law and order. In India, the case is not so straightforward.
To understand this malaise, we need to dig into the history of police in India.
After more than 70 years of Independence, we are still governed majorly by the Indian Police Act (IPA) of 1861, which was drafted as a direct consequence of the Revolt of 1857. This understandably explains the inception of the tenacious characteristics of brutality in present-day police.
After Independence, in 1977, the Janata Party government established the National Police Commission. Between 1979 and 1981, the commission produced eight reports, including a Model Police Act. The majority of these recommendations have remained unimplemented.
After that, various expert bodies have examined issues with police organization and functioning over the last few decades. Ideas like an ‘Independent Complaints Authority’ to inquire into cases of police misconduct, ‘Community policing’ to improve police-public relationship, etc. have been mooted. However, very little has fructified over the years.
There is a deep-seated and strong resistance to the idea of police reforms. Politicians and bureaucrats have developed a great vested interest in retaining control over the police organization.
In 2005, the central government set up the Police Act Drafting Committee (chaired by Soli Sorabjee) to draft a new comprehensive model police law that could replace the Police Act, 1861. The committee submitted the Model Police Act in 2006, which was circulated to all the states in 2006. Till now, only 17 states have passed new laws or amended their existing laws in light of this new model law. Even those states, which have passed the law, have diluted the provisions of model act to an extent that it basically defeats the purpose.
Reforms in the functioning of police can bring appropriate administrative checks, which can act as external pressure, bringing behavioral change in police personnel. However, there is a need for deeper attitudinal change in policemen.
Most policemen are made to believe from their very training days that brutality is inherent in the very role to be performed by them, to instil a certain degree of fear in the citizens. Having picked up the traits and armed with the power to take anyone to task, policemen exercise their unbridled power to beat, abuse, and even kill after they have donned the khakhees. Though the subject of human rights is a part of the training curriculum in training institutions, no seriousness is attached to it. Those who violate human rights are seldom taken to task. This needs a thorough examination.
Policemen either ignore complaints or take side with the aggressors/perpetrators. 86% of the police force are constables, who have no growth path other than a single promotion (to Head Constable) before they retire. So, they are not motivated to perform their duties. But the excuse of preoccupation with law and order problems and inadequate manpower cannot fully explain the predilection for inaction that has become routine in policing.
Mumbai’s fight against gangsters and other crimes in the 90s and early 2000 was fought and received very well among the public. We got the concept of encounter specialist, and many movies like Satya, Shootout at Lokhandwala, Ab tak Chappan, etc. were produced to cash the popular emotions. But we can’t actually revere encounter specialists. Because it is an extrajudicial killing and due process, the basic rights of the accused, even the life of the accused are ignored.
Recent Hyderabad rape case, Palghar Lynching, Campus atrocities, torture of Anti-CAA protesters, Lockdown excess—all are examples of their brutal actions or inexplicable inactions. We need to fill the existing gap between the rule of law and the role of law. A police force must be taught to follow due process, otherwise they will keep thinking themselves above the law, and with the help of snail-paced judiciary, will act like above the law. Police reforms are pointless unless these are directed at the police stations and further complemented by the judicial reforms.
The primary role of a police force is to uphold and enforce laws, investigate crimes, and ensure security for people in the country. In a large and populous country like India, a police force needs to be well-equipped, in terms of personnel, weaponry, etc. to perform its role well. Further, it needs to have the operational freedom to carry out its responsibilities professionally. However, to check against abuse of power (like the Thoothukudi custodial death case), appropriate safeguards should be put in place. This can be done through a well-thought systemic reform.
Further, the subjects of Police & Public order can be moved from the state list to the concurrent list. This would allow for speedy reform implementations and can reduce the influence of local politicians in the matters of police.
Sensitivity training at regular intervals can help make police personnel more empathetic towards the public. However, in the long-run, a thorough revision of the training plan for new recruits and mid-career personnel is needed.
Thus, it is time to launder the Khakhee and make the police SMART—police which would be Strict and Sensitive, Modern and Mobile, Alert and Accountable, Reliable and Responsible, Tech-savvy and well-Trained to deal with the citizens.